Isis Frausto-Vicencio in the lab at JPL

I grew up moving around in the U.S. and Mexico, which made it hard to keep up with school. I mainly struggled with my language arts classes, but there were areas in which I excelled: math and science. I was in high school when I decided I wanted to be a scientist; I was fascinated by the explanations of the world through chemistry and physics. Although I was living in Mexico at that time, I never gave up on the dream of attending an American university to pursue my education. In 2010, my family and I moved to California to escape the dangers of drug cartels that had invaded our town.

I was already a high school senior in my last semester when I enrolled in school. I had already missed all the university deadlines, hadn't taken the SATs and had to attend adult school in the afternoon to make up for missing credits. Despite all of that, I graduated on time and decided to attend the College of the Sequoias, a local community college, where I am now majoring in chemistry. (I will be transferring to the University of California, Los Angeles in the fall!)

During my freshman year, I heard about the NASA National Community College Aerospace Scholars Program, and I decided to give it a shot. I used my basic knowledge of chemistry to write a series of proposals for a mission to Mars that included a timeline, budget and rover design. Based on my individual performance, I was selected on a competitive basis to attend the on-site team project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There were about 40 students from all over the U.S. We were split into four teams to put our ideas together and build a rover. We called our team "Red Planet Research" and our rover was named "Isis." (It was my birthday!) Through this I experience, I saw what it takes to be a NASA scientist and engineer. I also discovered that I wanted to become one of the JPL scientists who are involved with exploration missions. I was hooked on studying the Earth and planets. I returned to my school excited for what was to come and shared my excitement with others. I am happy to say that four students from my community college participated in NCAS this year at JPL.

In August of 2013, I received an email from NASA Education saying that I had been selected to receive the Minority University Research and Education Program (MUREP) scholarship! The program guarantees two summer internships at any NASA center. Right away, I knew I wanted to come back to JPL. Although I come from a small community college, I managed to be a competitive applicant due to my involvement with science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, such as the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement Program and the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

This summer, for the first of my two NASA internships as a MUREP scholar, I am working in the AstroBiogeoChemistry (ABC) Lab measuring hydrogen and oxygen isotopes in hydrated clay minerals. Our goal is to improve instrument precision and techniques for possible future return-sample missions.

It's a dream come true to finally work in a planetary chemistry and astrobiology lab. I have the opportunity to meet researchers who are passionate about their work and be involved in exciting research. But I think the best part of the internship is my lab group. There are two other interns, two post-doctorate interns, a Ph.D. student, and my mentor. They all take the time to tell us about the work they're doing and, most important, mentor us as rising scientists. Throughout my experience, I have learned a lot about research, and I am inspired to continue in the STEM field. I was nervous before coming to JPL and didn't know what to expect, but being part of the ABC Lab has exceeded all my expectations. I encourage all community college students to apply for NASA opportunities.

Although my internship is coming to an end, I am happy to say that I will be back next summer to do more exciting research. 

Learn more about JPL internships and fellowships

TAGS: NCAS, Community College, Internships & Fellowships, Chemistry, Planetary Science, Astrobiology, Geology, Women in STEM


Not many interns get the opportunity to study one of humanity's biggest questions: How did life emerge? But mechanical engineering major Jessica Nuñez is having the experience of a lifetime in search of the answer. Nuñez is interning this summer in the Planetary Sciences Section at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

As part of a NASA Astrobiology Institute project led by Isik Kanik, Nuñez constructs and analyzes simulated hydrothermal vents, chimney-like structures that are hypothesized to have been the birthing grounds for the emergence of life. On a daily basis, she examines the chimneys, which she constructs herself through a chemical process, and analyzes them with one of her favorite tools on lab: an electron microscope. "It gets the coolest pictures," she said. "It's awesome to be exposed to technology here at JPL that I wouldn't be exposed to anywhere else." Nuñez observes the chimney's composition to see how its structure changes over periods of time. Along with her cohorts, she is hoping to see a chemical reaction similar to the one that scientists believe produced life on Earth.

Working closely with her mentors, Mike Russell and Laurie Barge, Nuñez is eager to lend a helping hand in research that could answer such an important question. "There are a bunch of different pieces to this big puzzle to see how life could have surfaced," she said.

While Nuñez's ultimate career goal is to work in the engineering field, she is excited about the new challenges and experiences an internship in planetary sciences might offer. "It was kind of intimidating at first, but at the same time I was excited about all the possibilities JPL has and all there is to learn," she said. "I would like to get exposed to as much as possible, so it's exciting for me to get my foot in the door here and see what work I can do in the future."

This fall, the 22-year-old West Covina native is bidding adieu to Citrus Community College in order to sail into new terrains at the University of California, Berkeley. Nuñez believes she will have an edge as she enters a new academic chapter. "In a sense, I think this internship is preparing me to transfer, because I am learning something new every day, so it's nice," she said.

Whether she is taking a run in the neighboring mountains, or investigating the deeply webbed quest of life's emergence, Nuñez is thoroughly enjoying her internship experience. And like many scientists and engineers who venture to JPL, she is already planning for her future endeavors. "I would love to continue working here, maybe even in different areas within JPL or other NASA laboratories," she said.

In the near future, she hopes to participate in developing missions to visit Europa and Enceladus, the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn, widely regarded as the next frontiers in the search for life beyond Earth.

Says Nuñez, "I've never been into space or exposed to it, but now that I have, I love it."

TAGS: Mechanical Engineering, Astrobiology, Internships & Fellowships, Citrus Community College, University of California, Berkeley, Women in STEM

  • Alexis Drake